Top Four Ways to Write a Losing Federal Proposal

By Global Services on Friday, February 28, 2020

Losing Strategy #1: Give the Proposal Evaluators What They “Really” Want—Not What They Asked For

Looking at an especially messy RFP, you might think that you understand what the customer is trying to ask for better than they do. You might think that you can come up with a much clearer organizational scheme for the proposal. And you might be right—but that’s not the point.

By failing to follow the RFP instructions as they’re written, you’re making the evaluators’ jobs harder: they’re expecting to see certain information in a certain order. If your proposal deviates from it, the best case is that the evaluators will be confused and/or frustrated. The worst case is that they’ll reject your proposal outright for noncompliance.

Winning Alternative: Always maintain strict compliance with the RFP as it is written. If there are serious flaws in the RFP that are creating problems for your response, ask the Government clarifying questions—that’s the reason for the Q&A period. Hopefully, your concerns will be resolved with an amendment—but if not, be prepared to respond to the RFP just as it is. You can make note of your concerns/assumptions in your proposal—but don’t deviate from the RFP requirements.

Losing Strategy #2: Get Too Few—or Too Many—People Involved

When too few people are involved in a proposal effort, the potential problems are obvious: without enough support from managers, coordinators, writers, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), graphic artists, pricing experts, and all the other unique skillsets needed for a winning bid, there’s simply too much for each person to do—let alone keep up with their regular duties. The result is a great deal of stress and a rushed proposal.

But having too many people involved can lead to problems too. This applies especially to leadership positions—proposal managers, book bosses, pricing leads, etc.—where the perceived diffusion of responsibility can lead to issues being left unresolved. This is why it’s important to clearly assign roles and responsibilities to specific individuals, who understand that they’re ultimately responsible for resolving any problems in their domain.

Problems can also occur when there are too many reviewers offering inputs. While it’s important to get all the relevant input you need, especially early in the process (i.e., Pink Team), as the proposal effort continues, it’s also important to know when to reduce the number of competing voices in the room. To have 20 people all giving different advice at a Gold Team review, for instance, would be counterproductive—trying to reconcile that many potentially conflicting inputs would likely make the final product worse, not better.

Winning Alternative: Aim for the happy medium, in which enough people are involved that the workload is manageable, but not so many as to be counterproductive. In general, the number of people directly involved in proposal activities should go down the closer the proposal is to completion.

In addition, make sure that roles and ultimate responsibilities are clearly defined and understood.

Losing Strategy #3: Improvise Your Proposal Schedule and Submit Just in Time

Novice proposal teams have a tendency to let schedule milestones pass by (or worse, to fail to establish clear milestones at all). This leads to increasingly frantic work as the deadline approaches, which in turn leads to frazzled teams and high-compliance-risk proposals.

Winning Alternative:

By carefully scheduling each step of the proposal process at the beginning, you can ensure that the work is reasonably distributed over time—eliminating last-minute chaos and allowing for a high-quality final product.

That said, there are legitimate reasons to modify a proposal schedule, and it’s important to be flexible enough to react to unexpected circumstances in the best way possible. By building a “buffer day” or two into your proposal schedule, you give yourself that needed flexibility.

Finally, always plan to submit your proposal at least 24 hours in advance of the deadline, and have a contingency plan in place. Things go wrong: electronic upload systems crash, printers break, courier services lose packages, airports get snowed in—and whatever the reason, a late proposal is a late proposal. When you allow yourself at least a full day to react to any emergencies, and when you have a backup submission plan in place, you don’t have to gamble weeks of your team’s hard work on the hope that nothing goes awry at the very end.

Losing Strategy #4: Ignore the Forest for the Trees, or the Trees for the Forest

A proposal that addresses every RFP requirement—but has no overall strategy, no compelling win themes for why the Government should pick this proposal over all the others—is unlikely to win.

On the flipside, a proposal may have fantastic win themes—but if it fails to include all the required items, it’s going to get thrown out for noncompliance.

Winning Alternative:

A winning proposal requires both detail-oriented and high-level, strategic thinking. Using the right tools can help you to fully cover both of these areas: compliance matrices and detailed outlines, for instance, can help you ensure no requirements are overlooked, while storyboards, features and benefits tables, SWOT matrices, and so on can help you refine your overall strategy.


*Want to learn more about proposal best practices? Consider joining the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) for access to their detailed Body of Knowledge.

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